As news from Israel rolls in, Jews are flocking back to shul

Synagogue attendance across the UK has surged in the face of Hamas terror


Rabbis have described attendance doubling at their Friday night services as British Jews gravitated to their local synagogues to seek solace from the community following the Hamas terror attacks in Israel.

Alyth (North Western Reform Synagogue) in Temple Fortune, north London, would typically have between 250 and 300 attending on a Friday night, that figure doubled to more than 500 people in the room and watching online.

Anxiety about security had made it impossible to predict how many people would be attending in person said the shul's head member of engagement, Sam Heller.

“We had no idea. It was either going to be no one or everyone. So we had people sitting in the foyer, and we had people standing up at the back, and we had kindergarten chairs. We ran out of chairs, we ran out of books, we ran out of shul sheets. There were people everywhere," Heller said.

The service was “exactly what everybody needed”, she added.

Rabbi Josh Levy, who led the service, said that the increase was much more significant on Friday, but that there were also more people present on Shabbat morning than there would normally be.

“On Friday night it definitely felt like people needed that sense of connection with the community,” he said.

“Both the ritual liturgical experience that we went through together, but also just being in a room with other Jews who they knew had had the same week as them, and being able to see one another, share that experience together and support each other. And it was profoundly moving.”

The service was designed to reflect the week that the community had faced, so it had culminated in a “powerful” congregational singing of the Hatikva, Levy said.

Levy was particularly moved that a small group of Muslim women from Nisa-Nashim, an organisation that brings Jewish and Muslim women together to create social change, asked if they could join the congregation to show their support, as did the assistant commissioner for police Matt Jukes, he added.

“We were very moved,” Rabbi Levy said.

“In this challenge of ‘Do people care?’, actually, we really discovered in that moment that people do care. We had a senior policeman and some Muslim friends with us and their presence was hugely appreciated and really important for people to see that allyship.” 

Rabbi Mendy Korer of Chabad Islington, Jewish Synagogue & Community Centre, in north London, said that their Shabbat morning service typically drew 10 congregants, but last Saturday, 20 people turned up.

The service included an emotional send-off for someone joining his battalion with members taking on mitzvahs in solidarity.

It was a similar picture at shuls across the capital and elsewhere. United Synagogues reported an influx of congregants for Friday’s Kabbalat services. Highgate had 90 people attend for Kabbalat Shabbat - many times the number of the people that attends on a regular Friday night, Bushey had more than 140, Woodside Park reported more than 400 people and Kingston had more than 50 people.

Barnaby Nemko, United Synagogue’s director of community life, said: "At this difficult time for our community, we are pleased the warm and welcoming services held by our communities attracted thousands of people over Shabbat to stand in solidarity with the people of Israel.

"Having been there myself, I know the comfort of being together in shul brought to so many, and provided us with a time to reflect on the tragedy and pray for the safe return of the captives. Our shuls have been saying prayers for Israel in their daily services and are preparing for another solidarity Shabbat this weekend - please join us once again."

Rabbi Andrea Zanardo said that around 10 people who he had not seen for a long time returned to Brighton and Hove Reform shul to join the services. Weekend services at New North London Synagogue were “definitely fuller”, according to Rabbi Zahavit Shalev, while Rabbi Igor Zinkov said that attendance for both Friday night and Saturday morning services at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue “at least doubled” their usual numbers. 

“The synagogue was filled with people, some of whom came from far away,” said Zinkov.

“At times of crisis, people need community and the sense of safe space. Many people are traumatised by the news and struggle to put their shock, anger and grief into words. This is where leadership is critical.

"The role of a synagogue in moments like this is to provide a safe space for people to be with each other and to allow people to be human and express their grief, concerns, and worries about the loss of many innocent lives both in Israel and Gaza, while at the same time strongly condemning horrible atrocities of the brutal attack by Hamas on Israeli civilians.”

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of Edgware and Hendon Reform Synagogue (EHRS), described the community’s overriding reaction to the Hamas attacks as the “need to be there”.

EHRS held a “very moving” community meeting last Tuesday, at which the 400 members in attendance online and in person heard directly from the rabbi in the Sderot region in the south of Israel.

The Friday night congregation was about twice the normal size there, with the usual 30 to 40 attendants doubled to more than 60, Goldsmith said. On Saturday morning, when they would typically have 150 to 250 members in attendance, there were well over 300. 

“People were coming in because of what was going on, and that was important," the rabbi said.

"I do know there are people who were there who don't normally come.”

At the request of the Board of Deputies, the synagogue also hosted a group of 40 Australian-Israelis who had been evacuated from the Gaza envelope, the majority of whom were women with young children.

While some joined the services, members entertained the children, and the charity Jami provided counselling: "We had play areas, toys and way too many bagels,” said Goldsmith.

“It was lovely and there was a strong sense of opening up that was important.”

While some members have been too worried to send their children to events and Cheder classes, others have felt that now is the time to take their child to synagogue. Although the numbers of young children at EHRS’s stay and play sessions fell, for those who attended, Goldsmith said it was “beautiful and emotional".

He added: "We've had both reactions, but certainly our feeling for the synagogue is everything is continuing. And we've had wonderful security, so we know we are well looked after. And we're not stopping anything... We are not passing on rumours, speculations and emails about things that are not verified by the CST.”

For some Jewish people, last week was either the first time they had ever attended a synagogue, or their first time in a long while.

For one, Russell Holbourns, the Friday service he attended was his first in 50 years. Meanwhile, Leeds-based Fabian Castillo, 27, who described himself as secular but the grandson of an Orthodox grandfather, said he had never stepped inside a synagogue until this past week when he attended his local Sinai Synagogue Community.

Castillo had been in touch with the synagogue for six months but said he had not plucked up the courage to attend until now: “I’ve been quite nervous, and going on my own I was really shy,” he said.

"It was really lovely - I was sat next to somebody who took me through the service, and I was able to pray. What's happening with Israel [made me feel] isolated so I really wanted to be a part of the community and meet other like-minded people and speak about it.”

He added: “It was very emotional. And it just felt like I really fit in.”

Hanna White, who is 58 and named after her aunt who was murdered at a concentration camp, went to her first service in two years in Bournemouth - a "communal prayer for Israel" held by Chabad.

White, whose late mother Josephine Bacon wrote for the JC, describes herself as “100% secular and married to a Catholic” and has family living in Israel, including her father Yehuda, a 94-year-old Auschwitz survivor. 

“I felt the need to attend because of what had happened and to be among my community,” she said.

“I wanted to be with people who understand how I feel, thousands of miles from family and friends in a war zone. I drew comfort from the service.”

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